It's all in the plans

IDC founder and head Prof. Uriel Reichman says his center will prove to be Israel's panacea.

uriel reichman good 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
uriel reichman good 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Prof. Uriel Reichman doesn't look 64. His energy, the passion with which he speaks of his life project, the 12-year-old Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, which has burgeoned to a 4,000-member student body, make him seem younger. But a glance at his resume reveals that this span of years was full and busy. Reichman is widely respected in the political and academic establishments. He is one of the architects of the direct election for prime minister - he believes the Knesset "twisted" the idea when it came to implement it - and other reform proposals, some of them under consideration today in the Knesset. He has chaired the Constitution for Israel movement, the Human Rights Committee of the Israel Bar Association and various public committees. His story is quintessentially Israeli. Born in Tel Aviv on July 4, 1942, to German Jews who had fled the Nazis, Reichman served as a paratrooper in the early 1960s, studied law at Hebrew University, got a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1975 and by 1985 was dean of the Law Faculty of Tel Aviv University. Since 1994, he has been president of the IDC. But his proudest achievement, about which he speaks with a zeal rarely seen in academia or among public policy experts, is the Interdisciplinary Center. Denied the Education Ministry because of the coalition agreement between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Labor Party, Reichman chose to leave politics. If he was not reforming the national education system, he said, the next best thing he could do would be to continue to expand the IDC. For Reichman, the IDC, a private non-profit institution of higher education, is the corrective for the country's myriad problems. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, he spoke about the present and future of the IDC, and the deep structural problems he sees in the political system that his institution is trying to solve. In the eyes of its founder, what is the purpose of a private academic institution in Israel? The vision of the IDC, as it is defined formally, is to develop an interdisciplinary university on a world-class level that will best serve the State of Israel and the Jewish people. This isn't an accepted formulation, adding national service and the Jewish people into the definition. It sounds small and nationalistic, while academia is supposed to be, so to speak, above the nation. But I don't think there's a paradox here. This is our Zionism and pioneering. How does an academic institution become Zionist? We're trying to fix national problems in the university setting. For example, a central mission of ours is the strengthening and development of Israel's security forces. From day one, the IDC gave preference to some 15 percent of its total student body who came out of elite army units and served at least five years. They were accepted with no psychometric scores and with high school grades that were lower than the rest of the student body, but with a specific military record. It bothered me that parts of Israeli academia disdain soldiers. Their work is seen as not intellectual. But Israel needs the most excellent among its citizens to devote some of their most productive years to military service. So we tell these soldiers their service is desirable for an academic institution. It's also about developing a national leadership, one that knows about seeing a mission through to the end, even at the limits of physical and emotional endurance, leadership under fire, honesty - in these units, if you lie you're out - and delaying gratification to contribute to society. And if these people also have intellect, which we discover in their studies, I want them as national leaders. Finally, in our institutes we deal with security. One is the world's leading Institute for Counterterrorism, headed by the former head of the Mossad Shabtai Shavit, alongside Boaz Ganor, one of the five top experts in the world in this field. There's the Institute for Policy and Strategy under Uzi Arad that deals with strategic questions in the Herzliya Conference. We see ourselves as part of a community that lives in a difficult security situation, and we want to contribute. Another subject we're working on is reforming the political system. The political system, not the people in it, is the problem. And the system to some extent selects the people. It's been said that one of the core problems in our political system is the lack of planning, the lack of a mechanism for strategic and policy planning that can help the political echelon. In the US, for example, a peanut farmer can be president because he has this mechanism, and doesn't need to know himself how to plan policy. But when a lawyer from Jerusalem is elected prime minister of Israel, he doesn't have this planning mechanism behind him. Olmert wasn't just a lawyer from Jerusalem. He was maybe the most veteran MK, a mayor, a minister of health. He had great experience, perhaps the best preparation for this job. Besides, even the person with the best preparation at the end of the day can make decisions like someone with less experience. You can't solve the problem with an advisory mechanism. It's important and helps, but it doesn't make the person holding the position irrelevant. Your peanut farmer, for example, with his fantastic advisory mechanism, is to blame for the holocaust that stands to happen here with Iran, because he's the one who allowed Khomeini to destroy the pro-Western regime of the shah, giving an enormous boost to the power of radical Islam. There's no question that Israel is facing a serious problem, one that comes from a lack of planning. It has difficulty making proper decisions because of the coalition system. And worst of all, it is impotent when it comes to implementing government decisions. More than 70% of government decisions aren't implemented. If you said this about a business, that business would no longer exist. There are faults that are built into the system. You have the coalition structure, where to form a government you have to have agreement from your partners. You have to sell a large part of your ideology and goals and plans. Even inside your party, you sit with people who are often your rivals. And you have to work with all this harmoniously to plan and implement policy. Coalition negotiations aren't a one-time occurrence, but are constantly taking place. You support a stronger prime minister. Perhaps a presidential system is in order? There are several alternatives. When I supported the direct election of the prime minister, an idea the Knesset twisted, I thought you had to give more power to the prime minister. [In a suggestion offered to the Knesset by a committee of experts which Reichman heads], we're now suggesting that the prime minister automatically be the head of the largest party, and would not need the Knesset's confidence to begin work. And to topple him, you'd need an absolute majority, either 61 or 66 MKs. But there's another problem - bureaucracy. Officialdom is similar to a chocolate cake, layers upon layers. Everyone who is elected brings his friends and places them in public sector jobs. So you have a group that can be ideologically opposed to the minister appointed to oversee them. When [former Shinui MK Avraham] Poraz was interior minister, he ran a ministry of Shas appointees. And there are 1,001 ways to not implement the minister's instructions. You say you're "learning the topic," need advice, you interpret the instructions incorrectly or you leak a controversial decision to the press. Furthermore, the life span of a ministerial position is very short. In the last 10 years, I think we had eight finance ministers and 10 national infrastructure ministers. When there's so much turnover and a new minister arrives with new ideas, why should a clerk in the ministry work too hard? In a year there will be another minister, other ideas. So ministers don't have a strong effect on the officials beneath them. The turnover also creates inconsistent policy and large amounts of funds wasted on bad policies. You don't even know whom to blame for more than 100% overspending on the construction of Terminal 3 at Ben-Gurion Airport, since the ministers changed so often. And you're talking about planning? I'm not part of the shouting about the legal system. But we also have to be aware that the legal system hinders and complicates decision-making. In the trade-off between clean government and developing the country, in the final analysis, we need a new balance. The Supreme Court, when it examines administrative actions, uses preventive concepts, such as balancing interests, proportionality, reasonableness, concepts that are very soft and tough to implement in the world of action, and require that judgment rest with the judicial branch, rather than in the executive branch. Now, this gets to the legal adviser of each ministry. If he approves a minister's idea, it goes forward. If he tells the minister no, he's a national hero - standing before the brutality of the government and stopping it with his own body. Most of these advisers can't see the problem in all its complexity - except of course for those who learned at the IDC. [laughs] But most know nothing about economics, have no broad vision of the problem. And they usually try to convince the minister not to do anything, since it's the safest path for them. And no minister can do anything against the opinion of his own legal adviser, or he risks being unprotected by the legal system if his action is challenged in the High Court of Justice. It's not that we don't need legal oversight of the government, but that there's too much power in the hands of legal advisers in the ministries, who are sometimes better and sometimes worse, that can prevent the ministries from functioning. With all the problematic bureaucracy of government tenders and waivers for tenders, there has to be oversight. But it has to be balanced with the need for the government to work quickly and effectively. There's also a problem with the recognition of the job of government. The government isn't supposed to implement. It's supposed to plan, pay and oversee implementation. But implementation itself doesn't have to be part of the government. You can outsource, privatize. As soon as the state has to do everything, and implement everything, it's hard to get work done. You're right that there's room to talk about strategic and economic advising. But even when these mechanisms are functional, they're unused. The Jewish people is mentioned in your mission statement. How does the IDC deal with Jewish peoplehood? The Jewish people is important here. We're drifting apart, in no small measure because of what's happening in Israel, not just with the Palestinians, but with the moral faults that are being attached to us. There is a lessened desire to identify with Israel, and we're losing the connection with the youth who are splitting away. From day one, I decided to offer a full B.A. in English to bring people from all the diasporas of the Jewish people. Just like they laughed when I wanted to establish the IDC without government money, and everyone was convinced this place would collapse or would be low quality, they saw this plan with the same cynicism. Until a few years ago, the trend was to leave Israel for studies in England and other places. I wanted to turn Israel into a place that you go to for studies. If we're talking seriously about a connection with the youth, this is it. It's not easy eclectic studies on a junior year abroad, but vigorous studies across three years for a full BA. At first, during the intifada, we had serious problems. But we persisted, and today, next year, we'll have 750 students from 53 countries coming for three full years of study. It's probably the biggest aliya project in the country. [laughs] I'm kidding, of course, but even those who don't remain will have roots here. Let's talk about social mobility. We have a reputation as elitists. I'm in favor of elitism if it's an elite of excellence and service to society. I most respect those who can rise above economic problems and social gaps, since they have the potential for personal strengths greater than those who were born with a silver spoon. We have more Ethiopian students here than at Hebrew University. This is an incredible group of people who could lead not just their social group, but all Israeli society. And their achievements are amazing. We have the first Ethiopian to finish [military service in] the naval commandos, the first to be accepted to the submarines. And working together with Israel at Heart, these students get to America to crowds we can't get to. With their excellent English, when they get to African American audiences and talk about Israel and coming to Israel by walking through the Sudan, they do a priceless service. The mix of social groups here gives students the opportunity to climb the social ladder. This costs a lot of money, but it's important to us to serve society through creating these opportunities. Your plans for expanding the IDC's activities include a "science town" in the Galilee. We want to open fascinating horizons before the young generation, which is seeking challenges and wants to give meaning to their Zionist values. Developing the Galilee and the Negev also has importance for keeping these areas a part of Israel and helping the weaker populations. This is an initiative to build a science institute near Safed, with a medical school, a private non-profit system that will create a scientific research institute that will deal with the avant-garde, the most difficult problems facing modern civilization, those that have a chance for a scientific breakthrough, such as biomedicine. It will deal with energy and water, questions that are worrying modern civilization, especially in light of climate change. It will be a project to raise the quality of life, the level of the science and the quality of medical services in the region. We will work with all the local hospitals and the local colleges and schools. Doctoral students will be able to teach in the area. To do this, you have to bring scientists to the Galilee, to offer respectable salaries, serious funds for research, infrastructure and a quality of life. This would cost vast amounts of money, on a different scale from the social science schools in Herzliya. I believe we can get the money. The only problem, as always, is the government. We need to get the land. All land in Israel is government land. We'll need full administrative independence on this land, perhaps as an independent municipality, accreditation from the Council for Higher Education for the schools we'll build there, and infrastructure up to the place - but not in it. Everything else we can solve with private funds. The whole project will be nonprofit and everything will go toward scientific research. At first, the idea looked like a fantasy, but after I thought about it, and we got an excellent group of partners for this project, it seems possible. The situation in the Galilee is bad. The strongest groups are leaving. There is crime, a low quality of life. This can offer a point around which start-ups and industries can flourish, like what you have with the Weizmann Institute or around Stanford. I think the first stage will require perhaps $400 to $500 million. We already have commitments of $200 million. I expect the next $100 million won't be hard to raise. Why is the government problematic? Until now, eight months after starting this, the state has been unable to make decisions. The prime minister, who supported the plan, appointed a committee of ministry directors-general. They met, but the director-general of the Housing Ministry wasn't there. We don't know the opinion of the Israel Lands Administration on this. We know there are problems with the Council for Higher Education, if it wants to establish it itself, to let us establish it or, as is accepted here, to have another war among Jews. Who opposes this idea, and why? Nobody. It's a wonderful idea. There are only good reasons to do this. And that's precisely why it won't happen. It would be easier for me to establish this here in Herzliya, but I'm willing to take on the trouble of this noble project. But you run up against the impotence of government institutions to push this forward, even when everyone has goodwill. Nobody in the bureaucracy can get this done, or even tell you that they can't do it. I hope things will get moving, through legislation if necessary. You need the prime minister involved personally, and I'm convinced no minister would oppose it. They even found a guy crazy enough to implement it. We're just telling them to let us work. When you talk about the IDC and its Zionist mission, even at the IDC there are people asking why I'm running to the Galilee, since there is so much left to do here. But I say this place was established to serve Israeli society, not to serve the people working here. This institute will be part of the IDC? I don't know exactly how the formal structure will look. It will probably be a separate corporation, but the IDC will be a dominant factor in it. Here we have social science, in the broad sense of the term. We're going to add a school for psychology and economics, and that will be the end of the horizontal expansion. Then we'll start building deeper and higher, so to speak. What about a school of education? What about an institute to develop education policy? Some say the most effective study of education policy happening in Israel today is being done by economists. The education system is, in many ways, broken, and there isn't a focus on education policy anywhere in Israeli academia. I agree that education has existential ramifications over time. If things continue as they are going today, we won't have a qualitative difference over the region in 30 years. In 60, it could be a serious, even terminal, situation. But you can't relate to education as a system. To do it seriously, you have to divide the large system into factors, and see what has to be done in different places. We can't deal with everything. We don't deal with education per se, but with questions of public policy. Our government school deals with public policy in the broadest sense, and with the nexus of education and economics. Related to education, there's a something I want to tell you, maybe the main point. It's important that the higher education system understand that it's not just creating and passing on knowledge, but, shamelessly, must be involved in educating values. We call these "freedom and responsibility" - not to do things you don't believe in, self-realization, not to rely on the government to solve your problems, being humane and acting responsibly toward society's have-nots. That's why we encourage our best people not to go into business but into public service and politics, to try to change the system. We believe that if we don't enter a period of reforms in the public sector, the state will be in a very bad situation.